Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s public transport subsidy scheme has been criticised for being open to abuse by parallel traders.

Lam delivered her first policy address on Wednesday, during which she tabled a new non-means tested Public Transport Fare Subsidy Scheme. Under the programme, members of the public whose monthly public transport expenses exceed a specified level of HK$400 will receive a subsidy. The government will provide 25 per cent of transport expenses over HK$400, subject to a cap of HK$300. A commuter who spends HK$500 on transport will receive HK$25, for instance.

Carrie Lam. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

Some have since speculated that the policy could be abused by parallel traders. A trip from Sheung Shui to Lo Wu and back costs HK$48, meaning that one only has to make 33 back-and-forth trips to claim the maximum subsidy of HK$300.

During a radio phone-in session on Thursday morning, a listener said he hoped that those who spend less than HK$400 per month on public transport fees would also receive subsidies. ‘Those who are facing the most difficulty may actually be the group that doesn’t use up to HK$400, but because they want to save a couple of bucks they… get up earlier and take the tram.”

Carrie Lam (right). Photo: GovHK.

Another listener accused Lam of subsidising parallel traders from mainland, who buy goods cheaply in Hong Kong to resell across the border: “For those of us who live in North District, it’s [really a pain], chief executive – why is the government subsidising people to engage in parallel trading? This is no small matter.”

In response, Lam said that one should not fuss over the trivial details when it comes to all-encompassing policies. She added: “If [the limit] is set at HK$400, then it’ll be difficult for travellers to [obtain the subsidy] – they will have to, within a certain time frame in Hong Kong, spend HK$400 on transport fees. So in terms of the design, we’ve already aimed at achieving a balance to assist those who live in Hong Kong and need to spend a certain amount on public transport fees.”

Photo: North District Parallel Imports Concern Group.

At a press conference on Thursday, Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting said parallel traders mostly travel between the North District and Shenzhen two to three times per day and they will be able to receive more subsidies, especially if they use multiple Octopus cards.

“Shall our public funds subsidise them? I am very concerned their activity may increase after the subsidy, affecting people’s livelihood,” he said. “We will discuss further with the government.”

Over the past few years, cross-border trading activities have sparked a series of protests by local residents angered by the disruption caused to their daily lives. Most of the heated protests died down in 2015 after the government withdrew the multiple visa scheme, which allowed mainland tourists to make unlimited trips to Hong Kong within a specified period.

13/10: Correction: A previous version of this report stated that it required 33 back-and-forth trips before being eligible for the subsidy. In fact, 33 trips would allow the applicant to claim the maximum subsidy, i.e. HK$300.

Karen is a journalist and writer covering politics and legal affairs in Hong Kong for HKFP. She has also written features on human rights, public space, regional legal developments, social and grassroots activism, and arts & culture. She is a BA and LLB graduate from the University of Hong Kong.